I’ve never naturally gravitated towards Harlequin’s romantic suspense category lines, despite being a longtime mystery/suspense fan. I suspect it’s because, as much as I love the category format, adhering to a shorter word count, delivering a satisfying romance, and one top of all that, a satisfying suspense plot is a really tall order. It takes a particularly skilled writer to be able to pull it off. For the most part Beth Cornelison does in this first book in her Bancroft Brides trilogy. The suspense plot wasn’t exactly challenging, but thoughtful characters and a climactic finish swoop in to save the day.
A year ago Holly Bancroft Cole’s husband, Ryan, was murdered. They found his body in an abandoned church, his wallet and shoes missing. Given the questionable neighborhood, police suspect a vagrant of the crime, but there are precious few leads. Which means 12 months down the road, the case is still unsolved. Holly has filled the void with her teaching job and volunteering at a local community aid center. That is where she meets down-on-his-luck Matt Rankin. Matt is living in a shady motel, currently in between construction jobs, and has lost custody of his kids to his in-laws. If anyone needs a break, it’s this guy. Through a series of circumstances, Holly ends up hiring him to complete renovations on her farm house. Work has stalled on it ever since her husband’s death, Matt needs the job, and she just wants to be finished with it all. But what will happen when Holly discovers the many secrets that Matt is keeping from her? Especially in light of the fact of their growing attraction?
Yes gentle readers, we have ourselves the ol’ Big Secret plot. It works fairly well here, as the Big Secret is highly charged and very emotional. However, it does rely heavily on coincidence. The reader has to be willing to buy into the fact that Matt and Holly’s paths have crossed before – even if they don’t realize it right away. Sort of like two ships passing in the night. The author lays out the facts in a slow and concise manner, having Matt unfold his tragic past throughout the entire course of the story. This is at times frustrating as he shares the truth with Holly in drips and drabs, instead of just laying all of his cards out on the table, and getting it over with – thereby causing turmoil later on in the story. That being said, both Holly and Matt are very nice people, you want them to succeed, and glory be, even with reticence and holding back, they do talk to each other – making it easy to buy into their budding romance.
The suspense thread here is decent, but it’s fairly obvious early on who our bad guy is. That said, the author does a fine job of leaving motive up in the air until it’s revealed during the final chapters, and this helped save the day. It’s easy to get bored with a suspense thread if you unravel it early on, and in this case the author does the smart thing by holding back just enough to cultivate an exciting finish.
While The Christmas Stranger didn’t change my life, it was a fast, quick read that kept me entertained. Holly and Matt are both very likeable people, and the suspense plot kept the story humming along at a good clip. There’s also a nice bit of Christmas flavor to the story, that would make this one an ideal holiday read – with an added bit of excitement as Holly unravels the mystery of her husband’s death. It’s a good, solid start to a new series, and future books are planned for Holly’s two sisters.
After her husband’s death, Holly Bancroft Cole knows Christmas won’t be the same this year. Still grieving, she decides to complete the renovations on her North Carolina farmhouse and hires a construction worker. Drawn to his piercing eyes and gentle manners, Holly can’t shake the feeling that secrets lie behind the handsome stranger’s warm smile.
Haunted by memories, Matt Rankin can’t remember the joy that simple pleasures bring until he meets Holly. When a harrowing attempt is made on her life, Matt realizes he can’t live without this beautiful angel. Now he must protect the woman he loves at all costs—even if it means risking his own life.